If the world is ending, do I have to write a headline?
By AMY BIANCOLLI
New York Times News Service
If you’re reading this, then the world hasn’t yet come to a screeching halt. Or it has, but the planet’s last surviving newspaper readers don’t much care. As Michael Stipe once sang, “It’s the end of the world as we know it — and I feel fine.”
In other words, today is a perfect time to celebrate. To quote another song from the bangled 1980s, when the End Times were less imminent and only the hair seemed catastrophic: Don’t worry! Be happy!
The notion of a so-called “Mayan Apocalypse” was based on the end of the 13th b’ak’tun (144,000 days) in the Long Count calendar — and the fear that a 14th won’t replace it. Assuming this turning point has passed us by without large-scale tectonic havoc, then the human race has somehow survived another widely publicized non-cataclysm.
Don’t forget Y2K. Or anxiety over the Large Hadron Collider. Or Harold Camping and all those other prognosticating pastors who love to tell us we’re about to die but can’t seem to get the scheduling right (“the end of the world is tomorrow; no wait, it’s next week; no wait, it’s next month”).
Meanwhile, pop culture still fixates on the dark, the depressive and the dystopian. Consider “Revolution,” “The Walking Dead,” “The Hunger Games,” and pretty much anything involving aliens, flesh-eating zombies and cute young archers. The future, once a province of hope in science fiction, is now a place of embers and pain.
“I’m kind of fed up with it,” said Bruce G. Hallenback, a horror author (“Monsters of New Jersey”) and filmmaker (“Blood of the Werewolf”). Even for him, the current gloom-and-doominess goes too far. “Everything is so grim and downbeat, and even the way the movies are filmed, it’s so dark. I mean it’s literally dark, and I get tired of that. I want color. I want a little joie de vivre. If the world’s gonna end, then at least let’s have a party.”
Seriously: Can we now call a halt to Armageddon? How many apocalypses can we take?
“I’m still struggling with the fact that there needs to be a plural for apocalypse,” said Pam Nicholson of Statesville, N.C., responding on Facebook to a newspaper blog post calling for an End to the End of the World.
Scheduled for release next year are three big-ticket movies whose titles alone foretell major planetary bummers: “Oblivion” (Tom Cruise on a ravaged Earth), “After Earth” (Will and Jaden Smith on a ravaged Earth) and “World War Z” (Brad Pitt vs. the zombiepocalypse). Part of the problem is the long lag between a film’s development and its release, reinforcing a mood whose time has past.
“So it’s a deja vu all over again,” said Donald W. Faulkner, director of the New York State Writers Institute and an observer of cultural trends. “I think it sort of amplifies a kind of doomsday mentality or apocalyptic sensibility.”
Doomsayers have been predicting an end to the world since the days of the early Christians — and ancient Romans suffered their own apocalyptic anxiety, periodically fretting that their city would expire after 365 years. Dystopian fiction isn’t anything new, either: If you really want to get depressed about the future, dip into Aldous Huxley or H.G. Wells.
“My futures certainly are not dystopian,” countered Paul Levinson, a futurist and science fiction author based at Fordham University. Levinson sees the 19th century as optimistic, the 20th as pessimistic and the 21st as “too early to tell”: On the one hand, fresh worries over global warming and pandemics. On the other, relief at the end of the Cold War. “If I had to make a prediction, I don’t predict the end of the world,” he said. “But I do predict there’ll be a tilt toward more optimism.”
Meanwhile, Israeli author Tal Ben-Shahar views optimism in pragmatic terms, arguing that widespread good in the world far outweighs the bad. As he said in an email: “To be pessimistic about the nature of our world is to have a narrow, distorted perspective, whereas to be optimistic is to be realistic.”
In the end — if not The End — we might not have a choice. “We have to be optimistic. Why bother to get up in the morning, you know?” asked Faulkner. “Beyond that, we might just be the biggest bunch of fools in the history of time. But you know what we can say? It’s gonna be interesting to find out.”
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